“Let’s get the band back together.” How many times have those words been spoken? But fortunately, it’s often as difficult logistically as it is artistically, so reuniting with teenage bandmates typically remains pondered but rarely accomplished. That’s usually a good thing. In the case of Annapolis band Pompeii Graffiti, getting them back together took a phone call from the sound engineer of their nearly abandoned debut recording. The results are as promising as they are surprising.
When we first met Ahren Buchheister, he was a 16 year old prodigy that impressed Ruben Dobbs so much as a guitar student that Ruben asked him to join his band Swampcandy. By the summer of 2005, he had formed Pompeii Graffiti with several classmates and they enjoyed the success associated with winning several categories in the Anne Arundel County HS Battle of the Bands. But as life often does, it got in the way as several band members headed off to college, leaving an unfinished demo in their wake. Fortunately, for them and us, local producer and engineer Ryan Cullen was so impressed by the early recordings that he urged Buchheister to reform the band early this year.
Despite the continuing academic careers of two of the original band members, Pompeii Graffiti did reunite by adding bassist Tyler Grimsley and badass local drummer Robin Eckman (Burn the Fields, Elder Statesmen, Cookie Head Jenkins) to the mainstays of Buchheister, vocalist Stephanie Leger and keyboardist Cara Santin. The band also performs with a rotating lineup of other musicians, including violinists, cellists, trumpet players, and rappers and the resulting sound is as varied as it is mature.
Don’t be thrown by the Judas Priest-esque album title “Five Minutes To Midnight.” Or the sea of feedback that accompanies opening track “Pickadilly 3rd.” This is a record that smartly makes it way around the rock landscape with songs that often unfold in movements, veering seamlessly from orchestral pop to gentle folk to rock that brushes up against both metal and punk. And for a record with fairly large aspirations, there’s also a humorous vain that keeps pretense to a minimum.
There’s the lovely and trumpet-augmented “Whale Song (Apology)” that owes a sonic debt to local songwriter extraordinaire Jimi Davies and his band Jarflys. The absolutely fabulous “Blankets” features slightly distorted call-and response backing vocals from Leger tucked into a tremendous pop arrangement. The jagged “Bad Social Habit” calls to mind the art punk of modern purveyors like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Los Campesinos!
And what can we say about “Emo Dance Song.” First off, it’s called “Emo Dance Song.” Secondly, it’s opening lines are “Another goddamn emo song/crying in the basement with the lights off” before setting off on a driving chorus that sounds like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol at the same time. That’s a song, my friends. The faux-hip hop of “I Got Style” with it’s over-the-top posturing and ironic musings about finance and romance (Where’s the G’s at?/Where the money? Where all my gangsta homies/With the honeys) begins almost as pure comedy but something even funnier happens along the way – it actually becomes a good song. By coupling rapper Jesse “Casheer” Smith and the violin, they manage to poke fun at the genre and make Kanye jealous at the same time.
But they save the best for last with the album closer “Settle For Less.” From its opening strings to its Rhodes-driven hook, it’s a song that unfolds over nearly seven minutes and showcases the male and female vocal interplay between Buchheister and Leger that defines the band’s sound.
For a bunch of kids, Pompeii Graffiti sounds like an old band and we mean that in the nicest possible way. In an era where indie has turned toward folk but all too often in the direction of the disingenuous energy of bands like Mumford &Sons, the multi-instrumentalists in Pompeii Graffiti have delivered a self-assured debut that demonstrates a wisdom beyond their years.
Pompeii Graffiti – Blankets
Buy the record in its entirety or track by track.
Just for the fun of it, here’s their take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” at an acoustic practice: